Toxic leak from NTPC's Singrauli coal plant contaminates water

On Oct 6, the dyke of a fly ash pond at a power plant of the NTPC in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh breached, causing spillage in several acres of land

Mithilesh DharMithilesh Dhar   29 Oct 2019 6:30 AM GMT

Toxic leak from NTPCs Singrauli coal plant contaminates water

"It was raining heavily that day. The wall, which was in poor condition, collapsed at four in the evening. People living in nearby areas panicked. Many animals got washed away. The thud was so loud that we felt as if the dam itself had collapsed," said Chitranjan Giri, a social worker, who lives in Shahpur village in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh.

On October 6, 2019, the dyke (boundary wall of a water body) of a fly ash pond at a power plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh breached, causing spillage in several acres of land.

After the dyke collapsed, fly ash -- ash produced in small dark flecks by the burning of powdered coal – from the power plant spilled into the nearby Rihand dam, which is the largest dam in India by volume and is located at Pipri in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh.

As a result of this, more than 20 lakh people living in Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh are drinking toxic water, which could possibly increase the risk of cancer in people. This poisonous water is flowing into fields thus damaging crops.

When Gaon Connection visited this dam, the reporter had to seek permission from the authorities as the movement of people had been restricted. Big chunks of fly ash were still floating in the dam and workers were trying to remove them.

On October 6, 2019, the dyke of a fly ash pond at a power plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh breached.

"Fly ash causes Asthma, TB, cancer"

According to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) -- a statutory body set up in 2010 by the NGT Act to handle cases related to environmental issues -- heavy minerals such as arsenic, silica, aluminium and iron are present in fly ash, which causes asthma, discomfort in lungs, tuberculosis and even cancer.

There are 10 coal-based power plants in Singrauli and Sonbhadra, located between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh border.

Ashwani Kumar Dubey, an environment expert, who is also an advocate in the Supreme Court, said: "This particular power plant generates a total of 21,000 MW electricity. It consumes nearly 10.3 crore ton of coal per year. This per-year consumption produces nearly 3.5 crore ton of fly ash. There is no way to dispose of this fly ash."

He added: "The NGT couldn't find a place to dump this fly ash. As per its order, it was supposed to start disposing of ash in the vacant fields of Northern Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India, which has its headquarters in Singrauli, but they did not wish to do. The dyke collapsed because of fly ash, which was in bulk."

Soon after the incident, many rallies and protests were organized. A petition has been filed against the NTPC in the high court.

Chitranjan Giri, the social worker, said: "The air here is polluted. After this incident, people who used to drink water from the Rihand dam are too scared to consume this water. We had informed the NTPC officials that fly ash is getting drained into the Rihand dam, but they didn't take it seriously. This could have been stopped, but authorities behaved carelessly."

However, when contacted, Lalmani Pandey, assistant manager at NTPC Vindhyachal, had a different story to tell. "Soon after the dyke collapsed, debris started flowing. The situation was beyond anybody's control. There was a drain on the way because of which the fly ash got deposited in the Rihand reservoir. While there was no loss of life, NTPC Vindhyachal has suffered huge losses."

He added that more than 50% of fly ash has been washed away thanks to the reservoir. Whatever is left, it is being removed.

Soon after the incident, many rallies and protests were organized.

The Sonbhadra-Singrauli belt is prone to accidents

In August, five children were rescued and more than 500 farmers in Madhya Pradesh suffered crop losses after a mud wall of a fly-ash dyke of Essar Energy's thermal power plant in Singrauli district collapsed during heavy rain.

RS Parihar, the regional officer of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, said: "The recent tragedy is bigger than the Essar tragedy. The only source of water in the region has been affected. The dyke was very old, the reason why it collapsed. Nearly 35 lakh metric ton of fly ash made its way through the drains into the Rihand dam. This could harm nature in many ways. It could also affect groundwater."

However, countering this, environmental expert, Ashwani Dubey said, "The maximum limit of the dyke is 35 lakh metric ton. The boundary of the dam was raised five times. This means around one crore metric ton ash is deposited in the Rihand reservoir."

He added: "This toxic fly ash was directly disposed-off in the Rihand reservoir. This dam, built over the Renuka river, is the only source of water for more than 20 lakh people in Sonbhadra and Singrauli. This river meets the Son river, which merges with the Ganga in the end. Just imagine, how dangerous the whole chain is. The future generations are going to suffer the consequences of this tragedy."

More than 20 lakh people living in Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh are drinking toxic water

According to the NGT, 1,800-ton fly ash is produced while generating one-megawatt of electricity. In India, 0.3 million-ton ash was utilized in 1991-1992; the number stood at 26.03 million ton in 2010-11. In 2016, 120 million metric ton fly ash was produced. As per the estimates, the number could go up to 150 million metric ton in 2020.

Ajay Chaturvedi, an environmentalist and founder of Paardarshi Bhaarat Civil Society, an NGO, told Gaon Connection that minerals like silica, aluminium, boron, arsenic, calcium oxide, chromium, particulate matter (pm) 2.5 and black carbon are present in this fly ash which makes it toxic. These minerals pollute the air in the vicinity of 20 km. It is also making water in rivers, drains and ponds toxic.

Narayan Vishvakarma, who has been fighting against illegal mining, deforestation, and increasing pollution from past five years in Singrauli said: "When there were no dams here, the water table was already low. But after the construction of Rihand dam, though the water level remained constant, but it turned toxic. Although water from the Rihand dam is not reaching people directly, but it's being used for irrigation."

The National Green Tribunal, on October 11, 2019, had ordered coal mines as well as coal-based thermal power stations operating in the critically polluted Singrauli area to pay a fine of Rs 79 crore.

But is this enough?

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